The Toronto-via-Halifax Hip-Hop Producer
By Cheryl Thompson
As part of the duo, The Extremities, Fresh Kils is from Toronto but he spent several pivotal years in Halifax honing his hip-hop skills. He spoke to SoulMatters about his hip-hop journey, the album The New Tonic: CBC Remix Sessions, and why he thinks Halifax hip-hop is in a state of rebirth.
SoulMatters: If we can start by you telling me a bit about your last album, The New Tonic, we have a review of it on our site, and I really liked it, it’s very jazzy. It’s more jazzy than typical hip-hop.
Fresh Kils: Basically how that record came about me and my friend Uncle Fester, we’ve been making music for a very long time doing production we kind of learned together in Halifax. When he got out of school he started working at CBC and basically what ended up happening was picking up all these session records and I guess back in the day CBC used to commission bands to do stock music for their shows. So he was digging up these incredible recordings what we could only imagine to be really rare. We knew that John Kong from Do Right Music he had done a CBC vault record and I think right around that time Madlib came out with a Shades of Blue, Blue Note remix. So we got the idea and he of course knew all the producers over there so he was like let’s just pitch it to them and see what they think. And, what ended up happening was really interesting because what they did they really liked the idea but they didn’t want to give us access to the recordings because they didn’t want to get into all the copyright issues. Instead what they did was that they were in the middle of recording a record called Tonic with four of the best Canadian jazz musicians out there. Number one being Doug Riley an incredible piano player and arranger, he arranged records for Ray Charles he played with pretty much everyone and he got the order of Canada for music. So it was a really great group of musicians so what they said was we can’t let you use the whole vault but we’ll give you this record we’re recording right now and we’ll give you the pro tools so that you guys can take it away and see what happens. So we did and basically we took all the recordings and all the parts and I think we did our first round with like fifteen beats and we were really scared at first because our hip-hop parlour tricks weren’t going to work on them. These serious jazz guys aren’t impressed by our craft most of the time. Sometimes it’s harder to convince especially the older guard. So we were really tasteful we tried to be as tasteful as we could, especially since not only were they original recordings but they were original songs too. So we tried to be as musical as we could. When we submitted the tracks they flipped out and loved it and from there it was a go.
So that’s the reason why it was so jazzy because the source material for the record was the record, Tonic. It was an interesting process because they paid for our studio time, CBC Studio H which is like an unbelievably beautiful studio. They paid for a lot of things, which was interesting because we worked very closely with them; they helped us mix, we had their engineers working on stuff and they gave input about who was going to guest on the record and things like that. There was one moment in particular where I got to see Tonic play at the jazz festival and when we watched them perform it was one of the most incredible music moments of my life. It was essentially watching them play the original records live and it was like watching them reverse engineer the record that we have been making, it was really strange. I would hear the sax player, Chris Mitchell, play a lic that I had used, chopped up parts of, and recontextualized as something else. It was a trip and no one else in the room really got it in that way.
SMM: Jazz musicians are like a breed onto their own when it comes to live performance.
FK: Definitely. It was just an amazing thing to see and actually just to have Doug Riley, who had passed that summer, come up and shake our hands and say that he loved the record that was a big moment for us. And actually the last song on the record because he had passed they asked us if we wanted to remix a Doug Riley song. We had mixed feelings about it because it’s not like we knew Doug that well and he had just passed. We had just accessed his last recordings at the time they asked us to do it and it was a real honour. We did it and we were really scared about it but the song “Funk for Joy” is what came out of it. It’s funny because that became a song people seemed to really like a lot especially out east.
SMM: Take us back and tell us about how you got into hip-hop and what influenced you and who influenced your music?
FK: Funny, I was a bit of a late bloomer; I missed the whole ‘90s I missed that golden era. I was a rock guy, messin’ around on my guitar and writing songs I was that guy, that’s where I was in high school. I remember very specifically a friend of mine trying to introduce me to Cypress Hill, I remember hating it, specifically “Insane in the Membrane,” and he was like you got to be kidding me.
SMM: Yes, well, that’s impossible!
“Loving hip-hop took longer and I sort of came around at it from a different angle…”
FK: It was so ironic in a way because I remember losing friends to it in a sense because a lot of my friends at the time started listening to that stuff heavily and I just wasn’t into it at the time. When I moved out east and I moved in with Uncle Fester, it’s really all Fester’s fault. What’s funny though is that he listened to all types of music and he exposed me to all kinds of stuff so I think so by the end of high school I was listening to Beck, he was a big crossover for me. He was a song writer and he played guitar but was blues and acoustic-based so a lot of beat elements and the production style started to creep into a lot of the things I was listening to. I was a huge Portishead fan, Chemical Brothers, and Tricky and a lot of the trip hop scene, especially bands like Massive Attack. Some of those bands you know the hip-hop started to seep into their production. At the time in Halifax it, early 2000s around there, it was an exciting time in Halifax. There was Buck 65, Josh Martinez, and they were doing a lot of big things we thought at the time. There was a scene there and Halifax got a lot of recognition on the underground. I was so into production and beats but more specifically the record that really turned me was by a group called The Goods, the record was called Secondary Education and I remember the production on that record. There were some other things in that era that really changed me so I got so interested in the process of it – sampling, making beats, digging for records – and I loved jazz, I played jazz guitar and my dad has a huge record collection and I just loved digging for music. Loving hip-hop took longer and I sort of came around at it from a different angle. The other hip-hop record I remember changing me was Juggaknots "Clear Blue Skies". When I heard that record that’s when I finally sort of got it. That’s one of the first records I listened to that I finally understood the power of the medium. It was Josh Martinez who played me that record and I was transfixed, I couldn’t believe it. From there I went crazy and totally discovered everything from that point.
SMM: So who exactly is rapping on the CD?
FK: You know a lot of our friends are on there. We’ve been doing work with Ghettosocks so he’s on there; Fiz is also a guy we worked with. Kaleb (Simmonds), I had known for a while, and he and I had known each other in Toronto and he and I worked on a bunch of songs at that time and he agreed to do a song (“The Way I Feel”) and we actually co-produced that song together that ended up being on the record and we used some elements from The New Tonic and he was down. Jorun is one of those guys that is sort of a godfather of Halifax hip-hop he’s sort of directly inspired or mentored two or three generations of hip-hop artists from Halifax. He’s incredible. So it’s great to get him on our record.
SMM: I liked how each track seemed to be unique. Sometimes you listen to enough hip-hop today it’s all sounding a bit the same. It was very refreshing to hear something that seemed like a lot of effort was put into each track.
FK: We were so scared about the jazz guys liking it that I think we put a lot of extra time into making sure it was musical.
SMM: What would you say having grown up in Toronto and then moving out to Halifax, how would you say Halifax has changed over the years? Has it lost something or is it still growing and changing?
FK: There is a sense that there was that one era you know with the people that I mentioned and that it did sort of lose something after a while. I don’t know, it’s like everything it’s cyclical and it has great moments and then not, but it’s funny now I’m living in Toronto and I hated Toronto for so long especially the hip-hop scene but now there’s so much amazing stuff going on and people seem to be building together more and there’s a lot more crossover and excitement. I think that in Halifax initially there was a time where everybody knew each other, everybody got a long and did things together, and that’s when scenes tend to come up when the lines don’t get drawn that hard. There was a time when there was a lot of cross-pollinating was going on but then people left and there was a bit of a void. I don’t know if it got filled a bit after that era, I think it took a bit for things to get back. But I left that scene, I really only spent four years there then I came back and I’ve been in Toronto ever since. It’s funny because Halifax has always had a solid scene and for some reason it’s always been a solid scene to develop. Everyone is so chill and when I spent summers there, just so many less distractions, people were focused maybe that’s part of it. It’s hard to speak on a scene; it’s hard to make judgment calls on how it’s perceived.
SMM: When you’re in a certain location looking at another location you sometimes look for the things that you don’t see in your own scene.
FK: Yeah, I can see that for sure.
SMM: You mentioned that you have another album coming out, tell us a bit about that?
FK: After the first record we didn’t really know what we were going to do. We had ideas about ‘let’s be the remix guys’ but the more we spun things around we were like let’s just do a record that’s ours. Again, there were some compromises made with the first record because of our relationship with CBC so we decided we were just going to do us and so we’ve done a lot of production over the years so it’s one of those things where you kind of go through beats and the collaborations that we could do. So do decided to do another mix of instrumental stuff and we were initially going to have an EP out last year but there were a lot of things in the works that we figured if we waited just a few months the record would be twice as good. When I left Toronto I actually one of the people that I had the honour of working with was Ali Shaheed Muhammad, from A Tribe Called Quest, I was literally in the studio with him producing beats for four, five days it was amazing. So for this record I had a bunch of those sessions and as an engineer I managed to get Ali’s blessing to work with some archives and that’s really exciting the collaboration with him that’s come along, it’s incredible. Going into it I was nervous about treating the source material with respect and musicality as I can but that’s a great collaboration. I’m very excited about that collaboration; a lot of the crew – Ghettosocks and Decisive – will also be on it.
SMM: When do you think it will be done?
FK: We’re actually quite close now but it’s so funny we’re not necessarily on a label so the pressure isn’t there but it’s getting to the point where yeah we’re hoping soon we’ll be done. A lot of instrumental stuff, guest appearances, we’ll try to mix it up. So it’s varied and there’s a lot of different flavours so it doesn’t get redundant or boring. And I was going to say, there’s something I’ve noticed and maybe because I’m a producer I’ve noticed it more but it seems like records over the past five years have been producer recorders like Jazzy Jeff, Marco Polo. I don’t think emcees should be in the business of picking their own beats I think they make horrible choices but there’s that and people aren’t making albums anymore, people are more making singles maybe that’s part of it. Flying Lotus, for instance, that’s a record I can put on and play.
SMM: Well that’s all the questions. Whenever we hear something that’s artistic with something that can seem non-artistic we appreciate the effort. It doesn’t go unnoticed so thank-you.
FK: I really appreciate it.